WATERVILLE, Maine — With time, heat, care and a little love, baker Adrian Sulea turns the simplest of ingredients into something transcendent: crusty, golden loaves of bread that would look right at home on the cobbled streets of Europe.
But the baker is glad that his loaves are ending up on the tables of regular Mainers.
“If I have to choose a goal, it is to get as many people to have the best quality bread there is,” Sulea, the owner of Universal Bread Bakers in downtown Waterville, said recently. “I think that’s the most fulfilling goal. If you eat bread — eat good bread.”
The love of good bread is something intrinsic that the 44-year-old Sulea has carried with him from Transylvania, the mountainous region of Romania where he grew up. There, he helped his family mill the grain for the breads they baked in huge, wood-fired ovens, as many as a dozen loaves at a time.
“Bread is huge in Europe. You have bread with pretty much everything, and it looks like this,” he said, gesturing at the loaves he had just pulled out of the oven.
However, when the baker moved to Canada and then America, he found that having good bread was not as universal as it was in Europe. Sulea worked in the restaurant industry in Boston for years before deciding that he wanted to go back to school to study business. He enrolled at the University of Maine at Farmington, and loved the small college and the area. But he wasn’t a big fan of the bread available there, so he dusted off old family recipes to make his own at home.
Those recipes call for only four ingredients — flour, yeast, salt and water — and require Sulea to pay constant attention to the dough, which is alive until the heat of the oven kills the yeast. He starts the dough the day before he bakes it, giving the yeast time to develop. Sulea, who said he can tell the temperature outside based on the way the dough feels, said that the humidity and the weather can affect the bread. Up to the time it goes into the oven, he can adjust the recipe accordingly by adding a little more flour or water, or baking it for a little more or less time.
“It’s just as much of an art as a science,” he said. “You have bad days and good days. You have to play along and make adjustments … anything that’s alive is not going to form its own personality if you impose your will on it.”
After graduating from the University of Maine at Farmington, Sulea worked as an accountant for a while, but eventually decided that he wanted to move in a different direction.
“I wanted to do something that I love,” he said, and thought about baking bread for a living. “Am I going to be happy and at peace making it? The answer was yes.”
Two years ago this weekend, Sulea opened his bakery. He said he anticipates the anniversary — on Saturday, March 26, the day before Easter — to be very busy, as folks stock up on bread before the holiday.
He and his wife, Nicole Sulea, live in North Anson and both commute to their small businesses in downtown Waterville. Her shop, Heirloom Antiques & Vintage, is right next door to Universal Bread Bakers.
“I always liked Waterville,” Adrian Sulea said. “Waterville has a lot of vitality. It has a lot of character.”
He wanted to keep the prices low enough so that customers would not think of the bread as an occasional splurge, but as an everyday necessity, with most loaves costing $4.
“At the end of the day, people still have to be able to afford it,” he said. “Just because it touches my hands, it can’t cost $10.”
These days, he leaves home early in the mornings to mix the dough one more time and give it another four hours to develop before he pops the loaves into the European-made oven. In the small, simple kitchen on Temple Street, Sulea dons his apron and pristine white New Balance sneakers and gets to work, using his hands to shape the dough into baguettes, boules and batards.
“It’s nice to wake up in the morning and look forward to the work,” he said. “A lot of bakeries use machines. That kind of takes the poetry out of it. I don’t think I’ll ever do that. How do you make adjustments if you don’t touch the dough?”
Although there aren’t a lot of ingredients, he is choosy about his producers. He uses flours from King Arthur Flour from Vermont and P&H Milling Group from Canada, which have no bleach or added chemicals, but are still able to provide him the large quantities of flour he requires. Because his recipes have no sugar and no additives, he said that having good flour is critical. In some commercially made American loaves, there is “so much junk” added that it hardly tastes like bread, Sulea said. That’s not the case with his.
“Basically there is nowhere to hide,” he said of his breads. “You either get it right or you don’t.”
So far, his customers seem to think he is getting it right. Courtney Miller Sanders, who owns Daily Soup in Belfast, incorporates Universal Bread into her menu every day.
“Every single day, someone new walks in and says, ‘This is amazing! Where did you get this bread?’” she said. “It is a perfect pairing for just about everything I sell.”
Universal Bread Bakers is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, at 19 Temple St. in Waterville.